Panel Discussion: The Big Challenge

Claire Hopkins introduces the panel. The discussion is around pinpointing the biggest challenges to attracting, training and retaining talent in Brighton.

[writer’s note: I’ve largely removed Claire from the copy but she’s asking the questions and deftly guiding the conversation]

Tom Chute

I’m from Pragmatic, a 55 person company in Brighton. When we hit 30 staff we realised we need to formalise HR and recruitment, so that was me.

Ed HIckey

I’m from Dab Apps, based here in Brighton, I’m Commercial Director. I’ve been at Dab Apps for 2-3 years and before that I grew teams at digital product firms here and internationally. I’m excited to be here to discuss the challenges we face. It’s a huge issue.

Mariam Crichton

I’m at Every1mobile, I’m Head of Project Management. We have offices in Brighton, Cape Town with satellite offices around Africa. I spent a decade in management and recruitment in mobile and software, based in Southampton, London and Brighton.

And we met Caroline Walmsley earlier.

Tom
I’ve been thinking about these challenges long and hard. Everyone wants the same things: automony, creativity and progression. Brighton has a fantastic freelancer community; great shared working spaces: encourages the freelance lifestyle. So our challenge is to work out how to offer those benefits of a freelancer lifestyle to offer people full time. Often we attract freelancers first, then lure them in with good conditions to sell them the dream and retain them as full time employees.

Ed
Specifically for us a big challenge is attracting senior or mid-level experienced developers. I was at the Jobs Fair yesterday and I got a *lot* of CVs from freelance graphic designers but not so many for developers, which are the positions we mostly have open.

The speed we can grow as a business is specifically sometimes held back by finding new people. We’re all going to mention people moving away and there are other challenges.

Mariam
Attracting seniors is a different challenge to retaining juniors and mid-level. A mobile developer can earn £70k in Brighton but £100k in London, so you have to find that person who will forfeit the salary for lifestyle reasons. They’re out there but it’s not as many people as you might think.

We’ve had to employ people permanently but remotely – so that’s retaining talent in our business but not retaining talent within Brighton.

Caroline
I think retention is about a bond between employer and employee. Attraction is about the age old methods of recruitment. Other models exist but that’s still the dominant model.

Another issue is the naming of roles. The things we refer to in schools workshops or colleges are different to how the roles are perceived within the industry.

Ed
I have to say, we’ve just opened a small office in Cardiff (since I’m mentioning other cities and going on about them constantly!) and hired a couple of people quickly. This helps us grow here in Brighton – but also gives us access to wider talent. There’s a market there as well, so we’re responding to potential clients. For us to continue to grow, relying purely on Brighton, was too much of a challenge.

Tom
We offer working sabbaticals, so people can travel and they know they can come back. They go for six months or a year and know they will come back. They’re both working and taking breaks, all the while travelling. So far they’re all coming back, so that’s meeting the need.

Caroline
In terms of retention, a lot of employees have a connection beyond skills and experience they bring to the job. So an organisation – or a senior within an organisation – with good purpose is important. There’s the saying “people don’t need jobs, they need managers”. If communication is great, management is good within it, that matters as much.

Mariam
I think the biggest challenge is not creating great culture, it’s salary. You’re competing with commuting or going to London. Juniors can double their salary by moving to London. At Ribot we had an amazing culture, we danced on tables from breakfast on Monday morning to beer on Friday, known for R&D days. But no matter how good the culture I had mid level staff going “I want a payrise, I could earn so much more in London”. After a while, literally most of them left. Once they get to London they realise, they don’t get the culture, they’re working all hours. But if you’re low- to mid-level they still want the salary.

One headhunter described Brighton as “a vicious market” because employers are not willing to negotiate. But people will turn it down, even though they want to work in Brighton, just for a couple of thousand pounds.

Tom
I was pleased to hear the story of Code Bar. Yesterday we had our second female developer start and she was being trained by someone from Code Bar. A year later, this is where they are now. They started as freelancers and because of Georgia’s mentoring they came onboard full time. This is formal training, we (sorry!) steer clear of day sessions because a month later they slip back into old habits, so we try mentoring, buddying, time set aside for people to be a mentor. It seems like the best way, even if it may have a bottom line cost.

Ed
It’s not necessarily a formal programme but our people spend a lot of time mentoring and training. A challenge is if you’re constantly hiring at a junior level they’re asked to step up and mentor quite early in their career.

I think it’s important (in terms of retaining) that they have that career development path, not just a route to earn more money. We’re aiming to create that path when they join.

Claire
I was struck in Chloe’s talk this morning by the lecturer on her university course admitting it would be out-of-date by the time she finished. What is there for entry level talent?

Mariam
People learn by meet-ups and more informally, maybe when companies offer one day a month R&D is very effective, rather than formal training. But they’re not frequent enough and don’t cover enough ground, or attract the best speakers.

I was talking to some developers who say that in London you’ve got every meet-up you can think of, they’re so inspiring and they’re willing to go in their own time – keep fresh in their own time. And in Brighton we can’t get there (another Southern Rail joke!)

So for Brighton to come together to offer more talks out-of-hours. This is something educators as well as employers – and cross sectors coming together – could take some responsibility for. It’s about sectors working as a group. But it needs to be co-ordinated properly.

Caroline
Training aspect is two-fold. Training required up front for you to come in and do a job, then ongoing training. Training should be good enough that the candidate brings something in to the company that they don’t otherwise have. it’s a two way thing.

How do you continually evolve and train the staff you have? It’s a big factor in retention. It can be as simple as constructive feedback. Not just my feedback to my team but – critically – their feedback to me.

Tom
We’re doing a knowledge-transfer partnership with the Uni of Brighton. It’s great – encouraging a two way flow of information into education and business. We’re also working with schools, they’re crying out for brief-setting, training. We set a brief, came back six months later and marked it. And it was a bit depressing that they were using 15 year old Dreamweaver that they could’ve built in a day in and up-to-date WordPress.   

Claire
Eugenie spoke this morning about inclusion and Uber trying to become, Anyone want to comment on inclusion?

Mariam
We must be very careful wording job descriptions. A lot of the time in tech, the management team are men. I walk into agencies without a single female developer. The way they word job descriptions is terribly important. If it’s asking “do you want to come and write sexy code?” it’s not going to attract female developers.

Another one was a job description asking for a ‘wizard’ – I didn’t even pick this up but I’d shared the description with a younger female employee and she spotted this casual gendering.

Claire
Thanks everyone.

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